Believe it or not, Lewis Black has mellowed over the years.
“There’s a reason I don’t yell as much,” the perpetually peeved comic said. “Over time, you realize there are so many other ways to make a point. I begin to find the words are pretty powerful. You don’t need to yell them. Sometimes just declaiming them works as well.”
An award-winning author, playwright and stand-up comedian, Black is best known for the rage-filled rants — punctuated with wild hand gestures and frequent F-bombs— he delivers regularly on “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.” He’ll bring his acerbic social commentary to San Luis Obispo next week.
Born and raised in the Washington, D.C. area, Black originally pursued a career in drama, earning degrees at the University of North Carolina and Yale. He eventually settled in New York City, where he spent a stint as playwright- in-residence at the West Bank Café’s Downstairs Theatre Bar before switching to stand-up full-time in the late 1980s.
Never miss a local story.
“I had no choice. I was so broke,” Black recalled. “Comedy seemed to be much more interested in me than theater was.”
Then, in 1996, “The Daily Show” co-creator Lizz Winstead tapped Black to create a weekly segment for the fledgling Comedy Central series. “Back in Black” remains one of the satirical news-parody show’s most popular segments.
“The greatest difficulty for me is coming up with the framework in which this stuff is funny,” Black explained. “My anger starts and that’s when I start focusing. It’s like solving a math problem.”
Over the years, Black’s influence has grown to include six comedy specials, seven albums and a feature-length concert film, 2010’s “Stark Raving Black.” The latter won Black his second Grammy Award.
In addition to the brief-lived television show “Lewis Black’s Root of All Evil,” Black’s screen credits include “Accepted,” “Man of the Year” and “Peep World.” He’s also penned three books and more than 40 plays.
According to Black, who counts Lenny Bruce, George Carlin and Richard Pryor among his greatest influences, his on-stage rage reflects not cynicism, but frustrated optimism.
“I don’t think I could get this angry if I didn’t believe it really could work and that there are people who make it impossible for it to work,” he said.
Black recently talked to The Tribune about anger, comedy and his multifaceted career.
Q: You turn 63 later this month. What did you picture yourself doing at this age?
A: I thought I would be finishing up a teaching career at a Southern girls school in theater. I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing now if I hadn’t started out thinking I’d be teaching theater somewhere.
Hopefully I’m a better actor because of the time I’ve spent in theater, and I’m a better writer because of the time I’ve spent playwriting.
Q: You’re a two-time Grammy winner. How does that feel?
A: I’ve certainly reached a level I never expected. And I certainly have things out there that I would like to achieve.
Q: Like what?
A: My main goal is to see that my comedy gets better (by) learning something onstage. As long as it’s a learning experience for me, I will continue to do it.
I’d like to have a weekly TV show, but that doesn’t look like it’s ever going to happen. (laughs) They don’t get me. There must be two shows a year that they reject. And every year I think we come closer to defining who it is that I am and plugging it in into some sort of context. And every year they go, “No, not enough.”
The great thing about being a stand-up (comedian) is the audience is the only one who can take it away from you. There’s nobody between you and them. Nobody can stand next to me onstage and go, “You know, you shouldn’t have done that bit.”
Q: What is your typical audience like?
A: I have really terrific fans. They’re very bright and very respectfulunless they’re drunk.How good is it to have a career where people go “Could you sign this?” and “Could you say, ‘F---you?’ ” It’s unbelievable.
Q: Is it difficult to maintain a certain level of rage onstage?
A: I’ve found during the time I’ve been in comedy that the stupidity level continues to rise. The meter has moved from stupidity right into ignorance. I thought we were better than that.
I think it has to do in part with leadership. (Americans) didn’t have a leader when they had Bush. Now you have Obama and in the end he’s not doing any better.
Look, if you want to go to war, you find the weapons of mass destruction, OK? You have a plan for what you’re doing. There are going to be astonishing books written about this period once it all comes to light. It’s the most remarkable waste of human life I could have ever imagined. It’s unspeakable. And there are still people willing to pay for it.
Q: You appear in the upcoming documentary “Looking for Lenny,” about Lenny Bruce. In your mind, what legacy did he leave behind?
A: When he talked about the Catholic Church and the wealth of the church, it was not something you did at all. He was 20 years ahead of where these people were living. You’ve got people like him and Carlin and Pryor trying to bring people into the future.
Q: Do you think we’ve caught up yet?
A: No, no. We’re a little more mature as a people. When Lenny Bruce was doing his act, the American people had the social maturity of a 10-and-a-half-year-old. Now we’re probably 15.
Q: What’s the best way for you, personally, to affect change?
A: To do what I do, to give to charities and do benefits.And say, night after night, as a rich person I’m not being taxed enough. Maybe the unemployed poor people out there who don’t have a pot to piss in, (who) still believe that rich people shouldn’t be taxed, might have a second f---ing thought about it.